Monday, May 13, 2013

Ten Armies in Hell

Book Review: Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell, Peter Caddick-Adams. Oxford University, $29.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-84809-358-4.  Review by Jared Frederick.

"No tree escaped damage, no piece of ground remained green.  On my lonely walk the only accompaniment was the jarring explosion of shells, the whistling of splinters, the smell of freshly thrown-up earth and the well-known mixture of smells from glowing iron and burnt powder" (184).  German General Senger und Etterlin remarked at this devastation of the battlefield during Operation Dickens, the Allied effort against the Gustav Line in March 1944.  Monte Cassino, the centerpiece of this formidable defensive position, is the subject of writer Peter Caddick-Adams's new book aptly subtitled Ten Armies in Hell.  A British veteran of numerous conflicts in eastern Europe and the Middle East, the author knows war firsthand, and his heart-wrenching narrative of the infamous WWII scrap suggests his own personal encounters on the field of battle.  Much like Antony Beevor or Rick Atkinson, Caddick-Adams's talent rests in his ability to equally balance the perspectives of the general down to the grunt.  And perhaps the most fascinating facet of the tale is his analysis of an "extraordinary rainbow alliance of nations and races" which waged a brutal offensive against fascist forces in the inhospitable mountains of central Italy.  The story is incomprehensibly brutal yet historically provocative and readable.

While many readers understandably have preconceptions of WWII Italy as an American vs. German fight, Caddick-Adams's important work will promptly correct this skewed perspective.  In actuality, the Allied force consisted not only of the usual military suspects, "but also Russians, Indians, Georgians, Napalese, Ukranians, French, Slovaks, Armenians, New Zealanders, and Poles."  The nationalities suffered together and endured drastic conditions against well-entrenched Axis forces.  While this diverse conglomeration may have been perceived as a harbinger of victory, such did not always seem the case.  As the author clarifies, this "international dimension of the huge Allied artillery resources available created the conditions for. . .friendly fire confusion."  As one Indian gunner recalled, "From battery to battery I heard every conceivable accent--American, British, New Zealand.  Elsewhere orders cackled in Polish and French.  Then like the opening phrase of a colossal symphony the guns roared in unison."  Confusion indeed.

The lack of a common language was not the only challenge the Allies confronted.  Horrid weather and excruciating coldness turned roads and pathways into impassable quagmires of mud or ice.  Rivers overflowed and engulfed vehicles.  Equipment froze and stalled.  One can only imagine a combatant frustratingly trying to thaw out a can of rations.  American deuce and a half trucks toppled over embankments, forcing weary and bearded GIs to revert to mules as forms of transportation.  Some 15,000 donkeys were implemented in the chaotic venture.  The men driving them often proved equally stubborn.

Perhaps the most compelling focal points in the book analyze the moral contradictions and ambiguities of bombing the 900 year-old mountaintop abbey above Cassino.  Allies seemed reluctant at first to bombard the historic shrine with thousands of tons of high explosive but were quick to justify their actions--including Eisenhower and Roosevelt.  German propaganda called the Americans and British "barbarians" for the destruction of the Catholic landmark.  Although the site was reconstructed within two decades, the action remains a historical gray area as well as a tactical one.  The bombed-out ruins of the abbey created a near-impenetrable labyrinth for Allies to inch through.  So too are the human costs of the campaign confounding: 200,000 casualties (or roughly the entire population size of Richmond, Virginia).  Was the cost worth the objective?  Even with his rich account and plentiful sources, the author largely leaves this all important question to the imagination of the reader.

Unlike Normandy or the Bulge, Monte Cassino was not celebrated.  Nor could it be commemorated in the same way by the veterans who participated in it.  In some manners, the fight remains a paradox.  Other than the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe, Monte Cassino has barely been mentioned let alone depicted in cinematic renditions of the war.  (The author notes, however, director John Irvin plans to release a film on the subject in time for the seventieth anniversary.  We'll see.)  All in all, Caddick-Adams delivers a masterful treatment of a too frequenrly omitted moment of World War II history.  His work is readable, personal, eye-opening, and gave me a higher appreciation of the Italian Campaign.  The story resonates with me, as now does the song "D-Day Dodgers," featured in the prologue of the book:

Look around the hillsides, through the mist and rain,
See the scattered crosses, some that bear no name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
The lads beneath, they slumber on.
They are the D-Day Dodgers, who'll stay in Italy.  

Overshadowed and forgotten.  Caddick-Adams's book is a step in the right direction of reversing that unfortunate pattern.

The Benedictine abbey overlooking Monte Cassino (constructed in 529 A.D.) became a fortress of rubble and was defended daringly by German Fallschirmjagers (paratroopers) who were trained to fight independently in small, leaderless groups.  They made the Allies pay for it in blood.  The structure was reconsecrated in 1964 and stands to this day.  Photo Courtesy of the German Federal Archives. 

1 comment:

  1. The 36th Infantry Division had a horrible experience at Monte Cassino. I'm doing some WWII living history with a group that takes the persona of Company G of the 36th. I read T-Patch for Victory and plan to read more about them and this horrible battle. Though all battle is horrible. Andrew